Unbearable, putrefying smell hanging in the air is the first thing that greets visitors at Rumphi District Hospital’s wards.
The smell is not from the usual disinfectant odours synonymous with hospitals. It is from beds where patients lie in agony with swarms of buzzing houseflies floating in the air.
Doria Makwakwa, 66, a widow from Zebedia Makwakwa Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mtwalo in Mzimba, has been living in this environment since May this year.
She is a guardian of her 32-year-old epileptic son, Levison Chalewa, who was heavily scalded on his legs, arms and stomach after falling on a fire he had lit to prepare food.
Chalewa was taken to a nearby Thunduwike Health Centre in Mzimba where he was referred to Rumphi District Hospital for further treatment.
Every morning, Makwakwa has a lot of things to think about apart from the recovery of her son who cannot sit and walk due to his poor condition. Her other concern is the food crisis that has hit Rumphi Hospital.
The hospital has suspended provision of food to patients for a month now, and all kitchen staff have been sent on an indefinite leave.
This is because the hospital has inadequate funds for operations. Government reduced funding to the hospital by half, according to Rumphi District Council chairperson Harry Mnyenyembe.
“The hospital has no food. The kitchen is closed. There is nothing the hospital is doing to feed patients.
“The DHO [district health officer] says there is no funding, and they have debts to settle,” said Mnyenyembe, at a time DHOs have been gagged to speak to the media.
He said the problem started in June when the hospital reduced meals for patients to one a day.
However, things worsened last month when the hospital suspended the provision of food to hospitalised patients.
The issue of funding has not affected Rumphi hospital alone. Several hospitals in the country are grappling with the same.
According to The Nation findings, other district hospitals such as Mzimba and Nkhata Bay, and Mzuzu Central Hospital (MCH) are also struggling.
In Mzimba, it has been over a month since the hospital stopped providing food to patients, which motivated a concerned group of individuals to raise funds for the food.
In Nkhata Bay, the facility has not been providing food for two months, which also led the presidential adviser on national unity and parliamentary affairs Symon Vuwa-Kaunda to donate bags of maize to the hospital.
In Mzuzu, several female guardians are invading residential areas asking for menial jobs to find money for feeding their relatives at MCH, whereas in Rumphi, most patients, especially those who come from far flung areas, have been left destitute, with some reduced to beggars.
“My relatives last visited me in August when they brought me a tin and a half of maize which has now run out,” says Makwakwa, who comes from Mzimba North.
“I have been surviving on begging from the community. Sometimes, fellow guardians share the little they have with me,” she laments.
She, at least, has the will to forge ahead in the current crisis. Some guardians have given up on going out and about begging for food and, possibly, lives have been lost in the process.
“The situation has forced several patients to leave the hospital without being discharged by medical personnel,” Makwakwa says.
The Civil Society Agriculture Network (CisaNet) has criticised councillors and members of Parliament (MPs) for remaining silent in the face of the food crisis in health facilities.
CisaNet programme manager for Rumphi, Alfred Kambwiri, said the elected leaders ought to advocate patients’ right to food if medication is to improve their health.
He said government is supposed to ensure that patients in hospitals have adequate food.
“If we critically analyse the situation now at the hospital from the day the food crisis started, you will be shocked to learn that a lot of lives have been lost,” Kambwiri observed.
He appealed to government to swallow its pride and declare a state of emergency so that the international community should render a helping hand.
“President Peter Mutharika, during his address in Parliament, assured the nation that nobody will die of hunger this year, but if people are starving [in hospitals] then that defeats the vision that the President has,” he said.
Rumphi District Council, however, says the secretariat has already sounded an SOS to the business community in the district, but nobody has rendered a helping hand yet.
“The other option was to consider internal borrowing to help the hospital. But the problem is that the council’s other recurrent transaction [ORT] has been slashed as well from K4 million to K2 million,” said Mnyenyembe.
Government admits the problem. Presently, there are plans of establishing a health fund to complement the national budget in offering quality and effective health services to everyone, said director of policy in the Ministry of Health (MoH), Dominic Nkhoma.
Meanwhile, the Rumphi Civil Society Network (RCSN) has planned to present a petition to the President through Rumphi District Council office during a demonstration today.
Speaking to our sister paper Nation on Sunday, Eunice Banda, who heads the network, said the President should address Malawians on this.
“Enough is enough… What is happening? Is there any hope in sight?” asked Banda. n